Here’s MIRKA, a clever sword-wielding girl-in-a-long-skirt!
Want to know them a little better?
Because, today… as part of the blog tour for the Sydney Taylor Award, I am MORE than pleased to introduce you to the surprising and delightful Barry Deutsch and his fantastical ortho-protagonist.
I am SUCH a fan of this guy that not only did I mail my own hard-won galley of his remarkable book across the country to another reader, so as not to hog it all for myself… but when I heard he’d won this award, and the lovely folks on the committee asked me to host an author as part of this tour, I basically begged them to let me interview Barry, in particular. This book is THAT GOOD. (Not that the other award-winning authors aren’t also great. If you want to decide for yourself, you can check out the digest of interviews over at the. Association of Jewish Libraries Blog)
But now that I’ve properly explained how I adore Barry, and Mirka, let’s get on with it. Drumroll PLEASE!
Barry, a lot of good Jewish stories begin at the beginning. Can you tell us a little about your background. Both as an illustrator/writer and in the Jewish world? How’d you get to be the Barry you are today?
My parents were reform Jews; I attended Hebrew schools on Sundays and we went to Synagogue on the high holy holidays, and had big family Seders on Passover, and I attended a great Jewish summer camp (Camp Modin, in Maine), but that was about it. We certainly didn’t do without pork in our diets, although my parents later switched to eating kosher.
I was always obsessed with comics; my parents had an original Pogo comic strip on their wall, and as a kid I reread that strip at least ten thousand times. So I think that strip is what turned me into a cartoonist! Eventually, in high school, I began really learning how to draw. After high school, in my bumming-around-aimlessly period, I attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where I took classes from Will Eisner. Eisner, who created “A Contract With God” and many other graphic novels, was one of the all-time great American cartoonists, and he was also the first major cartoonist to do comics about openly Jewish characters.
So obviously, that affected you, but specifically, what inspired Hereville? Did you just wake up one day and say, “Aha! What the world really needs is an Ortho-fantasy-graphic novel!”
Yes, that’s exactly it!
I think Hereville was mostly inspired by Lis Harris’ book Holy Days, which has a lot of appealing stories of daily Hasidic life. I read Holy Days 10 or 15 years before I created Hereville, but I thought it would be a great setting for a comic book, so it was in the back of my brain, waiting to be used.
I also greatly admired Love and Rockets by the Hernandez Brothers, and also Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai; all of those creators decided to do comics that drew on their own cultural heritage, and I think that adds greatly to both the depth and the entertainment value of those comics.
And finally, a website called Girlamatic, which specializes in girl-centric comics, was calling for submissions. A the time, I was considering both an autobiographical comic about Camp Modin, and a comic about the fairy-tale adventures of a Hasidic girl, but the girlamatic opportunity made that decision for me.
That’s fascinating– how opportunity can lead to creation…
I wonder, more generally, what are some of your favorite books? Are they all Jewish books?
Some of my favorite books are Jewish books — I’m a huge fan of Will Eisner’s work, for example, and I lovedThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Maus is a classic that deserves to be a classic, just a brilliant piece of work. I just recently read Hush, which was heartbreaking.
But although it’s definitely a plus for me if a book has Jewish themes, it’s not the main thing I’m seeking in my reading. Most of the books I read are graphic novels, and there are too many amazing cartoonists working with all sorts of themes for me to limit myself to just Jewish-themed books among my favorites.
That makes total sense, but wow–I’m a HUGE fan of Chabon too. Man, that guy can write.
Now, I want to ask you something I always wonder about, with any writer: if you had a do-anything-you-like credit from the publisher of your dreams, license to absolutely push the boundaries, and spare no expense, what book might you dream up?
Right now I’m doing the book I want to do, which is the second Hereville book. When I started working on Hereville, after all, I wasn’t getting paid, and I didn’t have an editor telling me what to do; so this is it, this is the book I create when no one’s telling me what to create. And Abrams has done a more-than-great job with the printing, so I can’t really ask for more there.
But what I’m hoping for, someday, is more time and space to work with, so I could do a really long graphic novel. I’d love to do a work like Kavalier and Clay — something that has a huge scope, that covers multiple point of view characters and an enormous sweep of time. I have a few ideas in that direction, but right now all my creative factories are aimed at the book I’m working on.
I’d love to see that book. I hope you write it.
Meanwhile, just one last little thing, in parting– Do you think books can change the world?
Definitely, but only the way a conversation can change the world, or a speech, or a TV show. Everything we do changes the world somehow, but usually the changes are very tiny. So to make a big change you need thousands of people (and thousands of books), all pushing to change the world in some direction. A good example is, are there going to be some engaging and interesting Jewish girl characters in kids books? If just one or two books do that, the answer is “no,” but if a whole bunch of us do it, the answer becomes “yes,” and that will make a small but consequential difference in the lives of a lot of Jewish girl readers who want to see themselves reflected in books.
A comment I’ve heard a lot of times about Hereville is that it’s a “whole family” book — as in, it’ll be given as a gift to one child in the family, but then it’ll get passed around to the other kids, and then both parents will read it, and it all happens within the first two days of Hereville entering that household. That’s a very small change — a few families got a bit of pleasure out of my work — but it’s one that I’m very happy with.
I think that’s absolutely accurate. My kids, who are 5 and 3, read it with me happily!
Thank you, Barry, for answering my silly questions… and thank you, more than that, for MIRKA!
Now, to the rest of you…